- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2001

Forcing motorists to spend half a day (or more) in line awaiting a state emissions inspection might be justified if cleaner air were the result. But the reality is these mandatory programs are largely a waste of time and money. Instead of cleaning up the air, all they do is clean out motorists' wallets. Meanwhile, the real problem poorly tuned older cars mostly escape notice, even though this relative handful of vehicles is responsible for the majority of automobile-related noxious emissions. These are the conclusions of a recent report by the National Research Council (NRC), an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

In brief, the problem with state emissions inspection programs, including those in the Washington region, is that they have not caught up with the times. Today's pollution-control systems are more effective at controlling vehicle exhaust emissions and more reliable. Indeed, they are required by federal law to perform for at least 100,000 miles.

The other issue is tampering. Prior to about 1981, the year when electronic engine controls began to be installed on new cars and trucks, cars often ran better without the emissions equipment, and it was easy enough to remove it, too. But since the early 1980s, engines have been designed with emissions equipment as an integral part of the engine's operating systems, and removing or tampering with them is not only more difficult it also typically results in problems.

Also, cars built since 1996 have onboard diagnostic systems that monitor the efficiency of the emissions controls and inform the driver if there is a malfunction via a dashboard warning light. Because these cars are effectively self-policing, testing them serves no good purpose, either.

The NRC and anyone interested in actually doing something about air quality suggests that blanket testing of late model vehicles should be dropped in favor of identifying and dealing with the handful of poorly maintained (and mostly older) vehicles that create most of the problem. The NRC estimates that 10 percent of the cars are producing 50 percent of the harmful exhaust emissions that lead to smog and ground-level ozone.

"Inspection and maintenance programs should focus on repairing the worst polluting vehicles …" said Ralph J. Cicerone, chairman of the committee that produced the report. This could be done by granting a waiver or exemption for new cars that remains in effect until they pass the 100,000 mile mark, or 10 years the durability standard mandated by federal law for new vehicle emissions control equipment. After 10 years/100,000 miles, the vehicle would be required to pass an annual or semi-annual emissions test. In conjunction with such an approach, remote sensing equipment that can "read" the exhaust content of passing vehicles could be used to identify specific cars that are high polluters. The owners of these vehicles could then be required to have their cars inspected and repaired as necessary. In this way, the problem vehicles and only the problem vehicles are identified and subjected to testing.

While it may have made sense to periodically test older vehicles, annual tests for today's cars and trucks serve no particular purpose other than to confirm what everyone already knows (that late model cars don't pollute) and, of course, to fleece motorists.


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